Studying with Bipolar Disorder

By Julia Alsop

I am very open about having bipolar, an often-stigmatized mental health condition that is defined by episodes of dark depression and those of euphoric manic highs (which are as destructive as they can be fun). Like most people with bipolar, I experience difficulties which can impact on my studies. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to provide a bit of education about bipolar disorder, as well as show other students in the same position that they can a) still be successful as a student and b) get support.

So, firstly, some misconceptions about bipolar:

1) It affects every single day: it can do, but not always. During episodes or trying to prevent episodes or medication issues, it can be very difficult to work, in ways that people can’t always see. I can feel agitated and uncomfortable, or so caught up in my own racing thoughts or lack energy entirely. But it is an episodic illness, so there are times when I am well and can work optimally.

2) It’s hard to be successful and fulfilled: not to toot my own trumpet, but I’m an Oxford music graduate going to study medicine now – literally living my dreams. Success is such a diverse concept but clearly there are difficulties of the illness that can impact being a ‘top’ student but equally, there are millions of people thriving with bipolar in the world, including top academics, doctors, and creative personalities.

3) That it is bad mood swings or a personality thing: nobody knows exactly what causes it (genes? experiences? chemicals?) but the intensity of the moods we experience are severe and by definition pathological. Being manic can be fun but the impulsivity and potential for psychosis is not, and can be as bad, if not worse, than depression. It’s a mood disorder and not a reflection of us as individuals.

4) It’s not my whole personality but it is important in my identity: when you’ve lived with this your whole life, you cannot know any different. So, while I am not my illness, the way it manifests has added to me – the opportunities I’ve had because of it, or the way I’m seen as bubbly or witty because of hypomania.

5) That it’s easy to treat: medications can work for lots of people but it can be hard to find ones without horrible side effects – I’m still waiting on this for me.

6) That it’s the same as being aggressive: it’s often used synonymously with someone being difficult or aggressive, but this is just a complete misnomer.

If, like me, you are a student with bipolar disorder or another mental health condition, you can still achieve and perform well. And it takes courage to be able to do that while also trying to tackle a difficult health condition. I would encourage you to build your support networks at university: apply for Disabled Students Allowance, get to know your GP, let your tutors know how they can help you in advance of being ill, and get to know your university’s disability services. These resources aren’t always perfect, but there will be someone who is helpful and will try to make sure things are in place for your best chances at achieving what you want.